From "In Defence of Bolshevism"
How does the left look today, measured by what it needs to do? The Morning Star, the paper linked to the Communist Party of Britain, circulates among a leading layer of the labour movement. Jeremy Corbyn used to write a column in it until his unexpected election as Labour leader in 2015. If there is a political organ of the Corbynites — Corbyn himself, Seumas Milne, Andrew Murray, and others — it is the Morning Star.
It shows that they are a Stalinoid formation. The strange difficulty the Corbyn group has in responding to and clearing themselves of the charge that they are antisemitic is part of that. Corbyn is for two states, but he has difficulty in candidly declaring that advocates or supporters of the conquest and destruction of Israel by Arab nationalist or Islamic forces are antisemites. Some of the Corbyn inner circle do believe Israel should be destroyed. All of them had and have connections and shared platforms with people who do.
Nine trade unions are represented on the board of the "People's Press Printing Society", which publishes the Morning Star, and pay subsidies to the paper. In 2016 "The World Transformed", the large Labour Party fringe festival promoted by Momentum, was co-sponsored by the Morning Star and had the Morning Star prominently on sale within the event, while other left-wing papers were officially barred from selling there.
The Morning Star started in 1930 as the Daily Worker, a Communist Party daily paper. It was banned from January 1941 for pro-German "anti-war" advocacy during the Hitler-Stalin pact — August 1939 to June 1941 — and resumed publication in September 1942. It became the Morning Star in 1966. Its first words critical of Russia appeared only in its 38th year, and the CP's 48th, when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia to kill the experiment there in creating "socialism with a human face". Between 1930 and 1968 it supported and seconded everything Moscow did and said and hoped for. Between 1968 and 1980 it supported virtually everything Moscow did and said and hoped for. It remained generally supportive of the Russian and other European Stalinist regimes until they collapsed in 1989-91. A large bulk of its circulation was to Stalinist-ruled states, which thereby subsidised it.
Journalistically the Morning Star is a seriously bad effort, without political coherence, flair, élan, political fire, or much positive socialist conviction. To this day it retains something astonishingly like an attitude of support to Russia and to the totalitarian-capitalist fascistic regime (what else is it?) in China. Forinstance, it sides with Russia against Ukraine. This goes further than negativism towards the USA, though that, it seems, is basic. It is as if the Morning Star sometimes relapses and forgets what month of the political calendar it is, or as if those who publish it often do not know quite what they believe. And, positively, most of the time, they don't. Their comments on events are arbitrary and erratic. And, as in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, often reactionary. They are enthusiasts for Brexit.
What a United Irishman, William Drennan, wrote about the state of Ireland and its peoples at the end of the 18th century is no less true of the Morning Star and the left today.
"Hapless Nation! hapless Land!
Heap of uncementing sand!
Crumbled by a foreign weight:
And by worse, domestic hate".
In terms of its politics now, the Morning Star, like much of the ostensible left, is uncementing sand, pulverised by great upheavals and the all-reducing passage of the Stalinist glacier.
The Morning Star is the "left" shorn of positive principles or any coherent notion of what the socialism its publishers think they promote is and must be. A central characteristic of the ostensible left, more widely than just of the Morning Star, is that often it does not know, positively, what it is for. A viable new left will never be raised on the mildewed crumbs of old Stalinist politics and animosities.
There are a lot of people on the Labour left now — more than in the 1980s — who deny the need for any explicit socialist organisation. They argue that being individually active in the Labour left (and usually also in Momentum) is enough, and even that anything more ("paper-selling" and such) is "sectarian", unnecessary, maybe harmful. Sometimes they go along with, or part of the way with, the Morning Star current. Sometimes they do not; but they see no need for an activist across-the-board opposition to that trend.
Some of these are people who were active in the 1970s or 1980s — often in or around a Trotskisant group — and have now returned to political activity via the new Labour left. Their attitude is shaped by disillusion with the group they were active in or associated with. Others are younger, sometimes influenced ideologically by "NGO politics".
On the pseudo-Bolshevik left, the biggest force is the SWP. In 1979-85 the SWP remained a part of the rational left, albeit a very sectarian and cult-ridden part of it. They had, for example, resisted the "anti-imperialist" demagogy that led much of the left in 1982 to back Argentina in the South Atlantic war. All that changed in the second half of the 1980s.
In 1987, seven years after the start of the Iran-Iraq war, the SWP decided to support Iran. Reason: the Americans, you see, were on the side of Iraq. As they had been from the start...
In a world in which the bigger ex-colonial or ex-semi-colonial countries had achieved independence (Russia's sphere was the exception) and become important economic and political powers, the SWP rediscovered "anti-imperialism". It seemed a cheap (and usually meaningless) form of militant posturing. The SWP's hostility to Israel reached the screeching level of absolute anti-Zionism in 1986-7.
The cult of their Little Great Man, Tony Cliff, was airtight and windowless. The long-time preacher of the idea that in "the downturn" nothing much could be done then in 1992, eight years after the miners' strike, suddenly advocated a general strike against the Tories' decision to close the pits of the "working miners" — the scabs — of the 1984-5 battle. The SWP had scorned talk of a general strike during 1984-5, when it made some sense. Naturally, those few who resisted the sudden brainstorm were expelled.
From about 1988 the SWP edged away from the "downturn" idea, at first vaguely announcing more "volatility". The SWP reoriented to seeking high union positions, where their members were cautious and passive in the name of "left unity".
Tony Cliff died in 2000, at the age of 83. In 1999 the organisation started a "Stop The War" campaign in support of a Serbian state that was attempting to kill or drive out ethnic Albanians in its colony, Kosova (93% of the population). What the chauvinism-drunk Serbs were capable of doing had been laid out before the eyes of the world in Bosnia. During the Bosnia war, as earlier in Serbia's war with Croatia, the SWP had remained its old self: aloof, refusing to give any degree of support to the Bosniac Muslims, not even condemning the arms embargo which the West imposed on people fighting for their lives against opponents who controlled the armoury of the old Yugoslav state. Now it started a campaign in support of Serbia, against NATO. It was a gruesome example of the snares of mainly-for-posturing "anti-imperialism". They actively campaigned for a state engaged in attempted genocide, when the only issue in the NATO-Serb war was that attempt at genocide.
The "Stop The War" brand name was given a new coat of political paint and relaunched against the invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). On Iraq, when the "Stop the War" campaign was able to organise big demonstrations, the SWP entered into a civil partnership with the soft left Labour MP George Galloway.
Galloway never had even halfway serious left-wing credentials. He was an unreconstructed old middle-of-the-road Labour Party Stalinist who through the 1990s had been a freelance London spokesman for the quasi-fascist Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq. In the House of Commons he was jocularly, and not so jocularly, called the "MP for Baghdad Central". He had gained infamy in 1994 when he visited Baghdad with a delegation of European MPs to present Saddam Hussein with a pennant from admirers in the West Bank and, in front of BBC cameras, told the dictator: "Sir — we salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability... We are with you... Until victory! Until Jerusalem!"
In 2004, together with this fragrant and dainty citizen, the SWP formed "Respect — George Galloway" (its official title on ballot papers). Those who in Kosova had backed the people murdering Muslims wholesale, now advertised themselves as "the best fighters for Muslims". They publicly apologised for having defended Salman Rushdie, fatwa'd by the clerical-fascist Iranian regime in 1989 for writing a novel, The Satanic Verses. They turned themselves into communalist politicians
When it came out in 2007 that Respect had taken a lot of money from a Dubai businessman, they gave it back. Respect subsequently split. The people who had run the Respect office and taken the money hived off from the SWP in 2010 and are now Counterfire: they run the Stop the War campaign and the People's Assembly.
Since Cliff's death the SWP leaders seem to have lost the confidence and elasticity required for any substantial reassessments. Their public profile is mediated mostly through an array of "broad" campaigns. In the unions they are cautious, distinguishing themselves mainly by what they call "political trade unionism", meaning, in their own words, such things as "using petitions, winning delegations to... anti-racist protests". That is sufficient? That is sufficient.
The SWP present themselves as enthusiastic supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, criticising him for his voiced objections to Brexit and to left antisemitism, which they explain as Corbyn conceding to the Labour right. They remain outside the Labour Party on the grounds that "strikes and demonstrations" are necessary for progress as well as parliamentary politics, and who is more expert than the SWP at such activities?
They retain a fundamental conception of "the party" (themselves) as an organisational machine rather than an instrument for ideological education and political clarity.
The Socialist Party, after their debacle in Liverpool, declared that Labour had now become an ordinary bourgeois party. They themselves split and scattered in the early 1990s. Their venerable prophet, Ted Grant, discredited like his "perspectives" by the collapse of European Stalinism and events in the Labour Party, was expelled, together with those who sided with him. Grant objected to the turn out of the Labour Party and at that point was not convinced that the progressive-totalitarian "degenerated and deformed workers' states" had collapsed. The SP exchanged its Little Great Man for a Littler Great Man, Peter Taaffe. Later in the 1990s the SP's main concentrations of membership, in Glasgow and in Merseyside, split away.
The SP revived a bit after about 2001. What the SP believes about the world now is not clear, at least not to this observer. For example, they have in theory pretty much the same position on Israel-Palestine as AWL does — two states — but they usually hide it. They retain the traits that endeared them to outsiders for so long, including the idea that you don't say what "the workers wouldn't understand" and might hold against you. Building on their fervent support for Brexit, they have extended that stance into an explicit opposition to free movement for workers across borders.
Since about 2000 the SP has held control of the PCS civil servants' union, in collaboration with the union's former soft-right.
It is much more usual than it was in the 1980s to find individual SP and SWP members openly sceptical about their organisation's policies. In terms of internal debate the regimes remain pretty airtight, the SP more so than the SWP.
The No-Party people
Across the valley, so to speak, from the toy-town Bolshevik shell-parties lived, in the 1980s, a lot of people who thought of themselves as Marxists but who had grown indifferent or hostile to any project of building a Marxist organisation.
This tribe, and it was quite an important component of the Labour left, marched or ambled, in so far as it expressed itself explicitly, under the idea: we will develop the influence of Marxism by promoting left-wing ideas in the existing broad labour movement, trade unions and Labour Party. No socialist organisation beyond the Labour Party and its coteries and careerist cliques was needed. The existing structures were sufficient.
This view was not often expressed in coherent argument, yet it was a most important current of thought or half-thought in the labour movement, the "position" of numbers of ex-WRP, ex-SWP, and ex-Militant people who turned the sectarian fetish of "building the party" inside out, and of younger activists who took their cue from them.
This is an important question again now, in the days of the Corbyn surge. Routine labour movement activity is counterposed to the creation of a Marxist movement that is politically and organisationally independent, has a distinct job to do, and rhythms and short term concerns "of its own".
The structures and ethos of either the Labour Party or the trade unions can not substitute for the specific structures required for all-round Marxist — Bolshevik — activity on the three fronts of the class struggle, the trade-union, the political front, and the battle of ideas.
You cannot meaningfully develop the "influence of Marxism" as a revolutionary force without building a revolutionary party. In the 1920s Trotsky thought that such a party, the Communist Party then, might slot into the existing framework of a union-backed broad Labour Party. "The Communist Party will occupy the place in the Labour Party that is at present occupied by the Independents".
At the end of the day, both formulas — spreading Marxism and campaigning to invigorate the labour movement in general, and building a revolutionary organisation — mean one and the same thing. At a certain point in the process they will have matched up and merged into one: a mass revolutionary party at the head of the broader labour movement. It is a matter of working out concretely at a given moment which is best of the possible ways the organised collective of Marxists, be they more or less numerous, can relate to an existing mass reformist labour movement and to ongoing working-class struggles.
More. The Marxists organise themselves so as to fight the class struggle on all three fronts — now. It is ridiculous to suggest that Marxists must wait until the movement is transformed before immersing themselves in the immediate class struggle, trade-union struggles, for example, and doing that effectively, that is, as an organised force. Equally ridiculous is the related idea that an organised collective of Marxists able to act coherently as a fighting organisation is useless in the class struggle here and now. Or any idea that we can transform the labour movement apart from the class struggle.
In 1984-5, the miners' strike could have been won with solidarity action by dockers and other key workers, or had what remained of the local government left, notably Liverpool, coordinated its activity with that of the striking miners. A network of rank-and-file activists in key positions across industry, even if only a few thousand strong, might have won solidarity for the miners — that is, made the difference between possible victory and the all-too-real defeat for the miners, and for the whole working-class movement.
Who will build that sort of movement if not the Marxists organised as, for now, a distinct, militant minority? If not now, when; if not us, who? Without revolutionary organisation we can only babble or maintain a preaching sectarian aloofness, muttering whatever self-consoling excuses we can foist on ourselves.